Mind the gap

Jan 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

CarnavalCARNAVAL – SA Finlay
Pub Write Side Left ISBN 9781999818104
Paperback £7.99 ($12.87)
Kindle £2.99 ($4.06)

Do you buy into the millennials’ line about the older generation stealing their birthright? Me neither. The baby boomer in me wants to scream: Rubbish! Get a grip!

But… but… but…

SA Finlay’s debut novel introduces two groups of characters: twenty-somethings (who are mostly broke) and fifty-somethings (mostly loaded). Carnaval, an unsuccessful barrister but still reluctantly one of the latter, reels between them, amiable, well-meaning and half-cut.

Finlay approaches the generation gap cleverly, using a different narrative style for each side. The parents’ story is told in traditional mode.

Carnaval sighed and nodded. “It’s true. But I’m not sure I caused you, you know. Are you not on any medication? You’re awfully angry.” Carnaval looked tired suddenly and melancholy, all his grin melted and his mouth turned down as if he might burst into tears. Anne glared and threw her arms up in the air. Too late. Carnaval pulled an orange silk handkerchief from his trouser pocket and blew into it as he wept. Great big tears.

The young people’s story is told largely through dialogue – sharp, contemporary and often funny.

“Things will be quieter. It’ll be different. I feel like I’ve been on cocaine for ten years and now it’s run out,” sighed Honoré.
“I feel like you made me take cocaine for ten years and now it’s run out.”
“I suppose we need to do some form of rehab, then?”
“Oh no. We’re not going to see that nutty cow. Her hair’s probably floor length by now. And she chants all the time. And her home is a pigsty. And all those weirdos that pop by, and those feral cats.”
“No, no. Not mum. Christ no.”

London, meanwhile, is a character in its own right. We’ve come a long way since Blair’s Cool Britannia, when they cleaned the stone and picked up the litter. This is the post-crash decade. Sometimes you feel that Finlay is channelling Bleak House.

It rained outside; it had rained for the first two weeks of March now, and London’s workers and non-workers tipped into and out of offices, into and out of buses and taxis and tubes and pubs and bars and shops, where they wrung themselves out over each other and fogged up every interior with the condensation from their banter.

A London of contrasts, black-tie invitation-only events in grand north London houses (we all know what that means) and shabby flats over bicycle repair shops in Eltham.

The cover blurb describes Carnaval as “a contemporary mystery”. This may be a bit misleading to readers who like genre stories. No detectives here, and no thrills. More a melancholy comedy of manners, but one with a warm, rich ending in which some of the characters at least reach a truce with their elders and with themselves.

Come to think of it, perhaps it is a mystery at that.

Carnaval Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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A verray parfit gentil knyght

Sep 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

A Kingdom's CostA Kingdom’s Cost – J.R. Tomlin
Paperback $12.99
Pub Createspace ISBN 9781463526795
Kindle £2.14 ($2.99)

We are lectured daily about this, that or the other freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. Freedom to consume ridiculously-priced coffees with silly names. Sometimes historical fiction provides a reminder that our liberties are only words, and that they can be whisked away in a moment at the whim of the powerful.

A Kingdom’s Cost is set at the beginning of the 14th Century, during the long-drawn-out wars of Scottish independence. It follows the exploits of the squire James Douglas. Homeless and landless at the beginning of the novel, his father dead at the hands of Edward Longshanks, he makes his way back from hiding in France to throw in his lot with Robert the Bruce. By the end of the story he has become a battle-hardened veteran, Black Douglas to his English enemies, brutal and ruthless in the service of his king.

J.R. Tomlin shows us a harder time, one in which winter brings starvation and wounds turn bad. No freedoms here, only obligations, to one’s family and to one’s lord. Her picture is of a society clinging to the landscape. Violence and cruelty are routine. She does not shy away from bloodshed – men and horses are remorselessly gutted and we learn more than we really want to know about the reality of hanging, drawing and quartering.

The landscapes themselves, meanwhile, are beautifully drawn. As in John Buchan’s adventures, the action seems to grow out of the Scottish settings. Mountains and glens, furze and heather provide a counterpoint to the dangers the hero faces, emphasising them and at the same time putting them in their place.

Tomlin’s characters are romanticised and perhaps a little self-consciously “historical”, but this does not matter because she has real flair for dramatic story-telling. The narrative plunges on in a series of episodes reflecting the progress – or lack of it – in the Bruce’s campaign. There is a vivid evocation of personal experience – sweat and the smell of horse shit, the weight of chain mail, a herald shouting to the assembled army with nobody able to hear his words.

One judgement which every writer of historical fiction has to make concerns the language. How authentic need it be to provide a flavour of the time? Tomlin has opted for a scattering of antique expressions, apparently intended to give a patina to the story. Not a wise choice. Most of them are out of place historically, serving to highlight the romanticised aspect of the book rather than its authenticity.

She seems particularly fond of the word “mayhap”, which occurs over and over again, sometimes in dialogue where it might pass muster but more often in narrative passages. The first time I came across this, the effect was like a poke in the eye. A sadder pedant than I am might have looked up “mayhap” and found that the earliest recorded usage (OED) was in 1536 – more than two hundred years later. An even sadder case might have started looking up other expressions Tomlin uses and found “merlon” (1704), good-brother (1513), “retiral” (1611), “gallowglass” (1515), “garron” (16th Century). The truth is that the Scottish wars took place a full generation before Chaucer was born. Even in the south spoken English would have been barely recognisable to us; in Scotland they would probably have used Norman French or Mediaeval Gaelic (Robert the Bruce’s ancestors were Norman).

In my Kindle edition I also found a number of proofing and formatting errors which even a casual check should have picked up. Typographical errors included the usual missing spaces between words, “fair” instead of “fare”, “censor” instead of “censer”, “your” instead of “you’re” and so on. More serious were the sudden changes of font which appeared in half a dozen paragraphs throughout the book. Things like this are very disappointing in an otherwise well-crafted work. Disappointing too was the failure to provide either a cover or a table of contents – the latter would have been particularly welcome as there were several appendices and a list of characters which I would have liked to refer to while reading.

Tomlin shares with the authors of Kidnapped and The 39 Steps an ability to draw a vivid story out of the landscape. Sad that she does not pay as much attention to the detail.

A Kingdom’s Cost Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

What should they know of England?

Aug 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Father of EmilyFather of Emily – Kristofer Oliver
Paperback £9.13 ($15.00) ISBN 9781463660253
Kindle £2.93 ($3.99)

To see your country and your countrymen as they really are, you have to leave them behind. That was Kipling’s view, at any rate. In this moving novel Kristofer Oliver takes the advice of the master story-teller.

Ben is an ex-pat living in Paris, having fled there at the end of a traumatic relationship. Several years on the new, if rather rootless life he has built for himself is turned upside down by the arrival of Emily, 14-year-old daughter of his former partner. The narrative traces the growth of their relationship, not-really father with not-quite daughter, and gradually unravels the mystery surrounding Emily’s unconventional mother Clara.

Oliver comes from the north of England, but he has lived in France “amongst smelly cheese and fresh coffee” since 2003. Eight years is enough for some of it to rub off. This is not a travel guide. The Eiffel Tower and Montmartre make brief appearances, but his default view is from pavement level: cafés and shops, traffic and the Metro. Locations are blocked in with a sense of familiarity, just enough to give freshness and lift.

The same goes for the writing. I would guess that Oliver has been in France for long enough to start thinking in the language. Once or twice there are hints of a Gallic turn of phrase: meeting Emily’s grandmother after a long absence, Ben thinks There are some many years Elizabeth and I have to catch up on… Sometimes this gives the prose a slightly bumpy quality; generally, though, the effect is to strip it down to essentials. The first person voice is clear and direct:

I can’t remember the time from when I first plucked up the courage to ask her out for a drink, to the time when I understood her when she was brushing her teeth in the morning. We fell into a partnership instead of a relationship. We were coupled from the start. I remember a day when we both came home separately from the rental shop with the same video.

Like the locations, the characters are fresh and convincing, particularly the trio at the centre of the story. Emily is a delightful mix of teenage savvy, edging towards adulthood, and childlike innocence. Her mother Clara, seen in flashback, has a convincing rawness, someone not built to stand up to the blunt instrument of everyday life. Even minor characters are “there” on the page. Ben’s latest girlfriend Sarah, leaving as Emily arrives, takes advantage of a difficult phone call to scoot round their flat and pack a few extra items:

Sarah picks up the iPod she bought me for my last birthday, mouths ‘mine now’ and places it in her pocket.

The two important relationships in the novel – between Ben and Emily and between Ben and Clara – are both rich and satisfyingly ambiguous. There is none of that irritating sense you get from some books that the narrator knows the whole story from the beginning, but is perversely keeping the reader in the dark. Ben discovers Emily, but through her he also rediscovers Clara.

Father of Emily has the contemporary charm and honesty of One Day. Like Nicholls, Oliver has an intimate grip on the minutiae of modern life – the wine and the chocolate, the bedclothes and the luggage. His characters’ dilemmas are not philosophically profound, but we recognise every detail of their bafflement faced with love and tragedy. The difference is that they live in Paris.

Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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The strangeness of libraries

Jul 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

The CornerstoneThe Cornerstone – Nick Spalding
Pub. Racket Publishing
Paperback £10.13 ($13.99) ISBN 9781461198215
Kindle £0.49 ($2.99)

Books are weird, have you noticed? That’s what makes booksellers a bit odd.

Fortunately Max has only read three in his entire life, not counting the Haynes Austin Montego Workshop Manual. Then the bored teenage hero of Nick Spalding’s engaging fantasy takes shelter from the rain in his local library, where he discovers that some books are doorways into other worlds. No, this is not a metaphor.

I would put money on Spalding being a Terry Pratchett fan. He scoops up several key ideas from Discworld metaphysics – the multiverse, the trouser legs of time, the essential strangeness of libraries – and puts them to good use. But he successfully avoids any suggestion that he is copying the Master. Spalding’s Chapter Lands are a long way from Ankh-Morpork. There are no dwarves or trolls, and while there is a slight air of mediaevalism about them, the furniture comes from Ikea.

The Cornerstone has more in common with Pratchett’s series for younger readers (Johnny and the Bomb, Johnny and the Dead, Only You can Save the World). Spalding is interested in the same surreal collision of fantasy with the down-to-earth demands of life in a modern provincial town. What is likely to happen when the showdown between the leather-clad, demon-possessed warrior and the librarian-guardian of Earth takes place in your mum’s back garden? The answer involves rotary clothes lines.

A thoroughly enjoyable book. Not long – I read it at a sitting, but that speaks for itself.

Quibbles? Very few, and all trivial.

I did think that the age given for Max (17) was about three years too old, both for the character and for the readers who are likely to enjoy this book most. Do 17-year-olds blush when they kiss the damsel in distress? Not any more, I suspect. As far as I remember, Pratchett wisely avoids mentioning exactly how old Johnny is – along with Max he occupies a no-man’s-land: old enough for insight, young enough to be bossed around.

If Spalding writes a sequel – as I hope he will – he might be a little more severe in cutting the colloquialism of the narrative style. The opening sentence is a good example:

It was, for all intents and purposes, the perfect day to visit the library.

You can see the tone he is aiming at, but for all intents and purposes is a bit of flannel which adds nothing. This sort of thing can easily become an irritating habit.

And please, please do something about the greengrocer’s apostrophe’s.

The Cornerstone Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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Kitchen sink

Jul 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Coconut BadgerCoconut Badger – Mark MacNicol
Pub: Two Fit Poles
Paperback £7.99 ($39.99) ISBN 9780956795809
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

In the 1950s the only thing you needed to shock your readers was a kitchen sink. Sixty years on it takes something more extreme.

Mark MacNicol’s troubling novel is set in the run down housing projects of Glasgow. His protagonist straddles two worlds. One foot is planted awkwardly in the estate where he was brought up – semi-derelict and rotten with alcohol, drugs and violence. The other is in the city’s financial district where he works – also twisted by lust, greed and ambition. When the book opens Tam is a loser in both, tongue-tied and terrified. Then he is taken up by Pat, an old man with a fearsome reputation, veteran of the city’s sectarian gang wars.

MacNicol slips easily from one milieu to the other, partly through the skilled use of dialogue, switching from smooth, middle-class chat-up lines to Clydeside patois without missing a beat.

Characters on both sides of the divide have an urgent life, but it is the people of the estates that really jump off the page:

“Yoos ignorin me, a said whit’s goan oan here?”
…Pat had a small man’s frame but somehow carried the menacing demeanour of a giant. He also sported a year-round tan, which was unusual as he never went on holiday. On closer inspection, his ravaged capillaries could be attributed to the whisky. His bald head was smooth and had the shine of a snooker ball. Sagging bags under his eyes and prominent laughter lines gave his face a look of surplus skin: Tam had never seen so many lines on a human face.

MacNicol also has the knack of sneaking up on the reader with fearsome images:

Pat reached down, picking one up as if he were a child holding a hamster. He stared at it almost lovingly for several seconds and then split the handle in two. Tam realised with horror that what he had thought were harmless fountain pens were in fact two open razors.

Tam gets his first lessons carving a pig’s head perched on one of the rides in a children’s playground.

This is a powerfully written book, but not for the squeamish. The reader is hustled along through a world that is mostly unpleasant, fascinated by what may be on the next page but at the same time dreading it.

And in fact, while MacNicol is clearly energised by the sordid and the bloody and his energy vibrates powerfully through the book, the more I read, the more I found myself wondering what the point was. He seemed to be saying that brutality was somehow more valid than other experience. Can that really be true?

In one sense all fiction is an act of thoughtless cruelty. Does anyone really care about Mrs Rochester, mad in the attic? But even if the good guys don’t win, we need them to be… well, good. They have to have stature. Or is that too Victorian? At least we have to care about them. Tam earns no respect, either as a wimp soiling his trousers or as the apprentice hard man.

Sixty years ago social realism had a purpose. Post-war Britain was still riddled with class. There were still taboos to be broken and the voices of the regions were full of energy. It isn’t clear what boundaries MacNicol is pushing back. Poverty and social division have not gone away but violence, brutality and ignorance are not the new kitchen sink. They are not in any sense more authentic than gentler subjects. They are simply… violent, brutal and ignorant.

Coconut Badger Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

Post-apocalyptic stress

Jun 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Last Man on Earth ClubThe Last Man on Earth Club – Paul R. Hardy
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

Inter-stellar travel is a bust. The stars are just too far away. How much easier to slip sideways and visit other Earths, infinitely duplicated through a chain of alternate universes.

This is the premise behind Paul Hardy’s highly original novel The Last Man on Earth Club. Exploration teams fan out from the world they call The Hub to visit its doppelgängers. All too often they find disaster: war, genocide and natural cataclysm. The Hub becomes a magnet for refugees and survivors. Among them are six unique individuals, the last members of their respective races. They are gathered together to undergo therapy.

One of the things that makes this book so readable is its clinical approach. It begins as a collection of documents: reports from contact teams and transcripts of individual and group therapy sessions in which the six – all in their different ways severely damaged – introduce themselves and their home worlds. Gradually these merge into a first person account by the therapist (herself a refugee from an Earth that sounds uncomfortably like our own). There are plenty of dramatic twists and revelations, but the measured tone of her voice holds all the threads together.

Hardy has obviously researched his subject (in a note at the end of the book he recommends several works on post-traumatic stress disorder and “post-disaster psychological aftercare”) but he carries his studies lightly and there is no sense of undigested theory. On the contrary, the characters are marvellously strong and varied, as are the layers of guilt they conceal.

He has put together a cocktail of sf scenarios which genre fans will love: nuclear devastation, environmental collapse, AI wars, genetic manipulation, plagues of zombies, the lot. All are dramatised in detail through the survivors’ eyes and all except one are gripping and convincing. The lapse is a ludicrous Marvel Comics world of incompetent superheroes which the author himself doesn’t seem to take quite seriously. A pity – on several occasions it threatens to throw the book off course.

This is not a feelgood story. It has uncomfortable echoes in recent history: the Nazi holocaust; the treatment of native peoples in Australia and elsewhere; earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. The survivors don’t like one another much. They don’t like themselves. By the end of the book they still have a long way to travel, but we feel they have taken the first steps along the road.

The Last Man on Earth Club Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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Eighty is the new thirty

Jun 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

Coffin DodgersCOFFIN DODGERS – Gary Marshall
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

There has been a catastrophic collapse in the birth rate and an ageing population is taking it badly.

Sound familiar? If so, don’t jump to conclusions. Gary Marshall’s entertaining dystopian thriller is no Children of Men. His senior citizens are not just old. They’re old and rich. The few children still being born are doomed to waste their youth pandering to the whims of a generation of geriatric baby boomers – not as care assistants but as barmen, croupiers and aromatherapists. Eighty is the new thirty.

This is Simon Pegg territory – Shaun of the Dead meets Hot Fuzz. The three twenty-something protagonists, Matt, Amy and Dave, work in a vast casino complex and spend their free time bitching and dreaming up juvenile practical jokes to play on their elders. A bowling green has Old Farts written across it in weed-killer; flagpoles marking the holes at a golf course are coated in anti-climb paint.

Then young people start dying is freak accidents – and always two at a time.

Marshall has chosen a difficult narrative mode for his story – first person, present tense and lots of wisecracks. With a less capable writer this would be a disaster – beginners sometimes try it because it looks accessible, but too often it exposes their lack of control over language and plot. Marshall is completely in control. The writing is neat and slick and each element of the story clicks effortlessly into place. The jokes – not laugh out loud gags, but good for a steady grin – are rooted in daily life: supermarkets, car parks, beer and the familiar hassles of singleton existence. Even the most bizarre-sounding incidents turn out to be based on reality. Dave takes a date to a restaurant where diners eat in the dark, served by blind waiters. Yes, there is one. Google “blind waiters”.

The chatty tone could easily come to feel relentless, but Marshall varies the pace of the writing very effectively. There is a faint shadow of desperation behind the characters’ good humour and beneath the banter the relationship between Matt and Amy is tender and sometimes moving. The grumpy policeman the trio try to enlist on their side is splendidly down-to-earth and the climax of the story is fast-paced and gripping.

He also resists the urge to over-explain. The novel is set in the near future. Most things are recognisable, but we learn in passing that newspapers are published on tablet computers – the characters tap to read the headlines. The internal combustion engine is a thing of the past, but we pick this up through casual references to batteries. This is very refreshing: Marshall trusts his readers to keep up, a tolerance too many sf writers need to learn.

An enjoyable first novel. But I hope that with the next one he will try something completely different. It’s easy to get into a groove with this kind of book and it would be a shame to see that happen to such a capable writer.

Coffin Dodgers Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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